Waymo just announced a second external funding round, raising $2.5 billion for the continued advancement of its autonomous driving technology.
According to investor website PitchBook, the company is valued at just over $30 billion, though that figure does not include this most recent funding round. (A spokesperson didn’t respond to a request seeking clarification.) For years, the company has relied almost exclusively on the largesse of its corporate parent, Alphabet. Then, in March 2020, it announced its first external funding round of $2.5 billion, a figure that grew to $3.2 billion a few months later with the addition of some investors.
The same groups that participated in Waymo’s first external investment are back for this second round, including Waymo’s parent company Alphabet, Andreessen Horowitz, AutoNation, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Mubadala Investment Company, Perry Creek Capital, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Magna International, Silver Lake, and funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates. The two new participants are Temasek, an investment firm owned by the government of Singapore, and Tiger Global.
Waymo says the money will help further its mission to bring its autonomous ride-hailing service to more markets. Currently, the company’s robotaxis are only available in to the public in Arizona in an approximately 100-square-mile service area that includes the towns Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and Tempe. Waymo also allows riders to take trips in its fully driverless vehicles without a safety driver in the front seat — though the service area for those vehicles is only about 50 square miles.
The news follows a string of departures from the company, most notably CEO John Krafcik, who oversaw the transformation of Google’s self-driving car division from “Project Chauffeur” to its own standalone company in 2016. He was replaced by Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s chief operating officer, and Dmitri Dolgov, the company’s chief technology officer, who are now serving as co-CEOs of the company.
“Experience has taught us so much, and we agree with those experts who say there’s no greater challenge in artificial intelligence than building and deploying fully autonomous technology at scale,” Dolgov and Mawakana said in a statement. “But we love a challenge and – thanks to the unmatched talent of our team – the Waymo Driver is already serving thousands of Waymo One riders as they get to work, shop for groceries, bring their kids to school, or just experience the joy of a ride with no human behind the wheel.”
Other departures include Waymo’s chief financial officer Gerard Dwyer and its head of automotive partnerships and corporate development Adam Frost, both of whom stepped down last May.
It’s also the latest news of new cash flowing into the autonomous vehicle space, which has been plagued by missed deadlines and diminished expectations in recent months. Yesterday, Cruise announced that it received a $5 billion line of credit from General Motors’ financial division for the purchase of hundreds of fully autonomous shuttles that will go into service starting in 2022.
Waymo’s autonomous trucking unit got a boost with the announcement that it would be teaming up with JB Hunt Transport Services, a 56-year-old company based in Arkansas. The two companies will work collaboratively on a pilot project to evaluate the use of Waymo’s autonomous technology to move freight.
The test will take place in Texas, with Waymo’s Class 8 autonomous truck hauling goods along Interstate 45 between facilities in Houston and Fort Worth for one of JB Hunt’s customers. The trucks will operate autonomously but will be supervised by two Waymo employees, a commercially licensed driver and a software engineer, from the cab of the vehicle. If everything goes smoothly, Waymo and JB Hunt could decide to work together on more freight hauls in the future.
While much of the public’s focus has been on Waymo’s autonomous minivans that operate in Arizona has part of a limited ride-hailing service, less attention has been paid to the company’s stated plans to eventually launch a commercial freight hauling business. Waymo has a small fleet of Peterbilt trucks that have been retrofitted with autonomous driving sensors and software, and it is currently is testing them in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Ultimately, the goal is to deploy Level 4 trucks, a reference to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) taxonomy for autonomous vehicles, commonly referred to as the SAE levels, which have become the global standard for defining self-driving. Level 4, or L4, vehicles can operate without a human driver behind the wheel but only within a specific geographic location, on a certain type of roadway, or under specific conditions, like good weather. Waymo has some Level 4 vehicles in operation outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
In addition to JB Hunt, Waymo is also working with Daimler on autonomous big rigs. The German automaker (and parent company of Mercedes-Benz) plans to integrate Waymo’s autonomous driving technology, widely considered to be among the best in the world, into its fleet of heavy-duty Freightliner Cascadia semi-trailer trucks. The Alphabet subsidiary also has preexisting agreements with Renault-Nissan, Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover, and Volvo.
Waymo is no stranger to Texas. The company’s groundbreaking demonstration of its prototype Firefly vehicle with no steering wheel or pedals took place in the city of Austin in October 2015. The company kept an office in the city until November 2019 when it abruptly shut it down, laying off 100 employees and contract workers in the process.
The Alphabet Workers Union launched a campaign Tuesday to push Google to allow employees to use their chosen names on ID badges. The move comes after Phares Lee, a transgender man who works at a Google data center in South Carolina and is employed by security subcontracting firm G4S, asked to have his deadname removed from his badge and was denied.
Lee came out as transgender during his initial interview with G4S. “I was assured [Google] was inclusive, yet when I asked about a badge in my preferred name I was told that my badge had to reflect my legal name,” he says in an interview with The Verge. “After arriving on site and being issued the badge with my dead name, I noticed there were many people on site, both cis and transgender, whose badges did not reflect their legal names.”
Lee’s experience reflects a growing sentiment within Google’s contract workforce, that TVCs (temporary, vendor, and contract employees) do not have the same rights and benefits as full-time Google staff.
In 2019, Google ended a long-time policy that forced employees to settle workplace disputes in private arbitration with the company. Yet the change did not extend to Google’s third-party contractors. “Contracting companies, like G4S, are allowed to make rules for their employees that directly contradict [Google’s] commitment to inclusion,” Lee explains.
Lee says that when he arrived at the data center, he was the only transgender security officer on site. In an attempt to connect with other LGBTQ individuals, he tried to join one of Google’s employee resource groups, which are designed for underrepresented communities. He says G4S management told him these groups were a “privilege” to which contractors were not entitled.
Now, the Alphabet Workers Union is circulating a petition asking Google and G4S to adopt a chosen name policy for TVCs and full-time staff. The policy should ensure “publicly displayed names reflect a chosen name where it differs from their legal name; allows pronoun stickers to be displayed on name badges, and protects the right to privacy of dead names,” according to the letter. The union also wants Google and G4S to allow contractors to participate in employee resource groups.
The petition currently has 165 signatures.
Neither Google nor G4S responded to a request for comment from The Verge.
One of Waymo’s fully autonomous minivans got stuck at an intersection in Chandler, Arizona, prompting the company to send a roadside assistance team to come extract it. But when the crew arrived, the vehicle started to drive away before pulling over and completely blocking a three-lane road. It was a rare moment captured on video of one of Waymo’s driverless vehicles performing erratically.
The incident was recorded from inside the vehicle by Joel Johnson, who publishes videos on YouTube under the handle JJRicks Studios about his experiences using Waymo’s Level 4 autonomous vehicles, which operate without a safety driver behind the wheel. Johnson’s video is a rare unedited look at what happens when one of the world’s most proficient autonomous vehicles gets tripped up by a few orange safety cones.
“It’s no longer stranded and now it’s blocking, okay,” a remote operator is heard saying to Johnson at one point in the video, to which he replies, “Well, this is interesting!”
The Alphabet-owned company has approximately 600 vehicles as part of its fleet. More than 300 vehicles operate in an approximately 100-square-mile service area that includes the towns of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and Tempe — though its fully driverless cars are restricted to an area that is only half that size. (Waymo hasn’t disclosed how many of its vehicles operate without safety drivers.)
In late 2018, the company launched a limited public ride-hailing service called Waymo One, but the only customers to get access were people who had first been vetted through Waymo’s early rider program of beta testers. Waymo said it has around 1,500 monthly active users from both programs, the same number it reported in December 2019.
Waymo has a team of remote employees that watch the real-time feeds of each vehicle’s eight cameras and can help, with the push of a button, if the software runs into a difficult spot and needs a human eye to figure out what’s going on. But the company claims that the remote assistance team can’t “joystick” the vehicles, only offer suggestions to help extract the car from tough situations.
One of those situations emerged in Johnson’s recent ride. The car wanted to make a right turn onto a street that had orange cones blocking that lane of traffic, which apparently confused the vehicle. In a statement provided to Johnson, Waymo said that it “detected an unusual situation and requested the attention of a remote fleet response specialist to provide additional information.”
Where things got hairy is that apparently the remote specialist “provided incorrect guidance, which made it challenging for the Waymo driver to resume its intended route, and required Waymo’s roadside assistance team to complete the trip,” the company said.
The remote operator tells Johnson that Waymo doesn’t assign a roadside assistance team to trail each of its fully autonomous vehicles in case something goes wrong. Crews are usually “two to five miles out,” she said. “It never was assigned one-to-one.”
At this point in the video, the car starts to reverse from its position where it was slightly blocking the road to a spot where it was more fully clogging traffic. It then stops again, as if unsure how to proceed. The wheel turns slightly to the right on its own, but nothing happens. “Very interesting,” Johnson says, gamely watching this all happen from one of the middle captain seats. “Now it’s blocking the whole lane instead of half of it.”
Meanwhile, a flatbed truck drives passed collecting all of the orange cones that originally confused the Waymo car. And right when the roadside assistance crew arrives, the vehicle suddenly decides to hightail it out of its embarrassing situation. Johnson sounds disappointed that he never gets to interact with Waymo’s team of roving problem-solvers as the car speeds away.
But oh, no! More orange cones appear, and the Waymo vehicle slows down and then stops again. The roadside crew eventually shows up, and the car tries to run away again. But eventually, it surrenders, and everything gets worked out. The whole video is worth watching if you want an inside look at what happens when our driverless future confronts the intractable problem of minor road construction.
More than 200 Alphabet employees have signed a petition from Google childcare workers asking for a commute stipend. The petition calls for workers to be given an extra $1,500 per month to help pay for ride-shares, car rentals, or other transportation costs.
Google is asking childcare workers and educators to return to in-person work on Monday, May 10th, while the company’s shuttle service remains suspended. Some make as little as $25 an hour.
“Transportation isn’t just a nice-to-have for us, it’s fundamental if we want to do our job,” said Denise Belardes, a childcare worker, in a press release. “We’re not the ones making hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. We do not have the option to work from home as other Googlers. We need this stipend.”
Google maintains four childcare centers in the Bay Area, where workers help educate and care for the children of Google and Alphabet employees. Many of the workers employed there don’t live close to the office due to the prohibitively high cost of housing, so transportation is a particularly vital issue.
During the pandemic, the workers began meeting with children over Google Meet, which made the transportation stipend unnecessary. But now, as Google starts to slowly bring employees back to the office, they’re being asked to return to in-person work.
In the petition, workers say Google did not respond well to the initial request. “When workers raised this issue, the corporate response was ‘transportation is just a perk, not a benefit,’” they wrote. “Shifting this cost to essential workers, who earn far less than the Googlers whose children they care for, is unacceptable. Google must do better.”
The petition, which is addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai as well as other executives, is backed by the Alphabet Workers Union. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge.
‘The AV industry has promised too much for too long, and has delivered too little’
After years of positive vibes about the future of autonomous vehicles and nearly unrestricted access to cash from Kool-Aid-drunk venture capitalists, the AV industry is confronting some hard truths. The first is that autonomous vehicles are going to take a lot longer to reach mass scale than previously thought. The second is that it’s going to be a lot more expensive, too. And the third hard truth: going it alone is no longer a viable option.
Last week, Lyft sold its self-driving car division to a subsidiary of Toyota for $550 million. Cruise bought Voyage. Aurora merged with Uber’s autonomous vehicle unit. Delivery robot startup Nuro acquired self-driving truck outfit Ike. There have been so many mergers, joint ventures, and various tie-ups lately it can be difficult to keep them all straight.
Where that leaves things is a little unclear. There is still money flowing to these companies, and nearly all of the executives, engineers, and software developers working on the technology remain bullish about the future. But there is a growing sense among experts and investors that the heady days when anyone with a couple of test vehicles, some LIDAR, and a vision for the future could launch a startup are at an end. And there will definitely be more shrinkage to come.
“The consolidation is long overdue,” said Raj Rajkumar, robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “The AV industry has promised too much for too long, and has delivered too little.”
There are other signs of general unease in the AV world. Last month, John Krafcik announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Waymo after helping lead the company since 2015. Krafcik oversaw the transformation of Google’s self-driving car division from “Project Chauffeur” to its own standalone company. During his time, Waymo struck partnerships with several automakers, launched a limited ride-hailing pilot with fully driverless vehicles in Arizona, and expanded its commercial ambitions to include trucking and last-mile delivery.
As a former auto executive with years of experience at Hyundai and Ford, Krafcik was seen as someone who could bring self-driving cars to the mainstream. But his decision to step aside at a time of heightened uncertainty highlights the difficult road ahead for self-driving cars — especially as many of those early predictions have failed to come to pass.
Krafcik was not able to bring to market an autonomous vehicle that can drive on any road and in any conditions without years of rigorous testing. Aside from a small area outside Phoenix, Waymo’s cars require backup drivers to monitor the vehicle’s operations and take control if anything goes wrong.
Waymo still has a commanding lead in autonomous vehicles, but diminished expectations about the future of self-driving cars are affecting its business in other ways, too. In 2018, Morgan Stanley published a research note valuing the company at $175 billion based on its perceived leadership in the space and the potential for massive amounts of revenue from its autonomous vehicles.
A year later, the bank slashed Waymo’s valuation to $105 billion, still an extraordinary amount of money for a company with no revenue. But last year, when Waymo announced its first external funding round of $2.25 billion, the company declined to discuss what valuation that investment was based on. Later, the Financial Times reported it to be $30 billion — a nearly 85 percent decrease from 2018.
Valuations aren’t the sole indicator of where things stand with autonomous vehicles. But they do point to investor sentiment. And right now, investors are not feeling as confident in the prediction that autonomous vehicles will soon become the dominant form of transportation.
For years, Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, has been criticizing rosy predictions about our driverless future. She’s consistently warned that the technology is much further away and harder to get right than anyone in the industry cares to admit.
The recent trend in consolidation is vindication for her position, she says.
“It’s kind of like the elephant in the room,” she said of the shrinking of the AV world. “People will mention that and then they’ll stop themselves from making the Socratic connection to what this means about the viability of this industry.”
But Cummings doesn’t think people in the industry will be able to ignore the truth for much longer. “There is an embarrassingly large sum of money that’s been invested in this, so people feel like they have to keep going down that path because surely all these people who invested all this money can’t be wrong,” she says.
“Not everyone is delusional,” she added. “Just most people in this business.”
That said, Toyota and Aurora weren’t delusional when they decided to buy the automated driving teams at Lyft and Uber, respectively. They likely saw the value in the code produced by those teams, as well as the talent accrued by the ride-hailing companies over the years. When you can’t hire the people you’d like to staff your own projects, then you have to acquihire them, the distinctive Silicon Valley practice of buying a smaller company for the express purpose of acquiring their team of software engineers. Also, Uber and Lyft were very motivated to sell as recently public companies under pressure to staunch the bleeding and become profitable.
Another recent acquihire was when Apple bought bankrupt self-driving startup Drive.ai back in 2019. Apple had just laid off over 200 engineers from its secretive Project Titan, its own floundering self-driving operation. The Drive.ai team, composed of several graduates from Stanford’s AI lab, had already had some modest success with a ride-hailing pilot in Texas. Unhappy with its own team, Apple simply fired them and bought a new one.
“The buying up of these companies represents companies being able to buy skill sets that they would not otherwise be able to recruit,” Cummings said. “And I think that’s very valuable.”
The recent reorganization of the self-driving car industry may also point to a new set of priorities. Namely, robotaxis are out, and logistics and industrial applications are in.
Four years ago, the industry saw plenty of startups come out of stealth promising to do everything: they were going to make hardware and software; they were going to build their own vehicle; they were going to do robotaxis and delivery and trucking. And of course, they were going to change the world in the process. “It was a little bit like the decathlete business model,” said Reilly Brennan, general partner at venture capital firm Trucks. “We’re going to be very good at 10 different things.”
Now, most investors are interested in more “structured” applications of automated driving technology, such as construction, mining, middle-mile delivery, and agriculture. “So instead of being a decathlete, you had to pick a javelin thrower,” he said.
That’s not to say robotaxis are completely dead — far from it, with major players like Waymo, Cruise, Argo, and Baidu as well as smaller startups like Pony.ai, May Mobility, and Optimus Ride still banking on the proliferation of autonomous ride-hailing vehicles by the middle of this decade. But Brennan says the robotaxi craze has definitely cooled in recent years.
“Frankly, we stopped seeing robotaxi startups in probably the end of 2017,” Brennan said. “Here we are in 2021 and there are very few ongoing robotaxi startups that aren’t, you know, Cruise, Waymo, or Argo.”
Brennan thinks the concept of autonomous vehicles that can drive anywhere under any conditions is still possible, but much further out than originally thought. They will require huge financial investments — “11 figures” by Brennan’s estimates — and a willingness to tolerate zero cash flow until the technology is mature and safe enough to launch. There are only so many companies with deep enough pockets to take on that challenge: major car companies like Ford, GM, and Volkswagen or tech giants like Apple, Alphabet, and Intel. Everyone else is probably not long for this world.
The mid-level engineers always knew this to be true, Brennan said. It was the CEOs who were making the erroneous predictions about the availability of self-driving taxis by 2020. “I think the CEOs of those companies knew that they were going to be playing golf by 2020,” he said.
During the height of the pandemic last year, Google was the rare tech giant that actually saw a revenue decline — the first in the company’s history — but only by 2 percent. To say Google has now recovered would be the understatement of the week: Alphabet’s just-released Q1 2021 earnings show it raking in a stunning amount of cash this spring, nearly as high as the all-time record revenues and profit it set last quarter.
Alphabet’s filing (PDF) shows revenues of $55.3 billion, nearly as much as the $56.9 billion it pulled in Q4 2020, alongside $17.9 billion in profit compared to $15.2 billion. That’s also 34 percent more revenue year over year, though that’s admittedly comparing to March 2020 when the effects of some pandemic shutdowns may have been included in the results.
Alphabet’s all-important Google Cloud business does still seem to be losing money — last quarter, it broke out Google Cloud sales for the first time ever to reveal an eye-watering $5.6 billion loss in 2020. But the bleeding has slowed, with the company losing less than a billion dollars ($974M, to be precise) on over $4 billion in revenue. Each prior reported quarter saw over a billion in losses after pulling in under $4B, so those are both improvements.
We also learned for the first time last year how much money YouTube brings in (it was a $15-billion-a-year business in 2020), and while YouTube didn’t pull in quite as much money in the spring quarter as in Q4 ($6.0B vs. $6.9B previously), it’s still a huge increase from the flat $4 billion YouTube’s ads delivered a year ago in Q1 2020. Back-to-back $6B quarters for YouTube would suggest we’ll be looking at far more than a $15 billion-a-year business — assuming people don’t dramatically cut back on their YouTube viewing as vaccine availability spreads and people get back out in the world.
It’s hard to tell how Google’s hardware business is doing because Alphabet bundles it into a giant “Google Services” category that not only includes YouTube and Search but also the company’s entire ads business, the Chrome browser, and Android’s software revenue. But the company does have a “Google other” category that it makes distinct from its search and ads businesses, and that category pulled in $2 billion more year-over-year to reach $6.49 billion in revenue.
Alphabet’s “Other Bets,” comprised of its experimental projects like self-driving company Waymo, health company Verily, and Google Fiber, is unsurprisingly still small. It pulled in only $198 million in revenue for an operating loss of $1.15 billion.
Developing… we’ll be updating this story with more info from Alphabet / Google’s earnings release and the investor conference call at 5PM ET.
Health care company One Medical charged administration fees to some people receiving COVID-19 vaccines in Washington, DC, according to bills reviewed by The Verge. The company runs the COVID-19 vaccination site at DC’s Entertainment and Sports Arena. People vaccinated at this site were also prompted to sign up for a trial account with One Medical to receive the shots.
One Medical told The Verge in a statement that an error in the billing system led to the charges, that impacted patients “are being notified,” and that they should disregard the bill. “We are monitoring daily to ensure that no new invoices are going out,” One Medical said.
There is not supposed to be a charge associated with the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccine providers can get reimbursed by insurance companies or federal programs for the cost of administering the vaccine, but the CDC’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page says that they cannot charge patients that administration fee directly. The DC Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment by publication.
Chris Driver, who lives in Northeast DC, says he was charged by One Medical for both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. He provided his insurance information when he signed in for the first shot but was still billed a total of $56.94 — $16.94 for the first dose, and $40 for the second dose. After receiving the bill for the first dose, Driver tweeted at One Medical on March 18th asking why he was charged. The company responded that it would remove the charge. Over two weeks later, the first charge was still listed on his account, and the second dose fee was added.
The charges appear to be inconsistent. Driver’s wife was also vaccinated at the One Medical site, but he says that she did not receive a bill. But another person who got a first dose of the vaccine at the One Medical site was charged $40 by One Medical, according to a bill reviewed by The Verge. That person — who wished to remain anonymous to discuss personal health information — did not give their insurance information when they got the shot.
Health officials around the country are working to improve vaccine equity by removing barriers to sign-ups like complex websites or the perception that there’s a charge associated with the shot. It’s a big problem in Washington, DC, where more affluent areas have far higher vaccination rates than poorer areas and communities of color.
“While I can afford a random $55 medical bill if it came to it, I know that’s not always the case for a whole lot of people in the city,” Driver said in a Twitter direct message. Millions of people say they aren’t going to get vaccinated because they’re worried about costs, according to a US Census survey — even though the vaccines are free. “The federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge to all people living in the United States, regardless of their immigration or health insurance status,” the CDC’s website says.
People getting shots in other states have also been stuck with bills. One Houston, Texas-area clinic charged people $30 for each dose of the vaccine, 13 Investigates found. The Texas Department of State Health Services told 13 Investigates that providers should not be charging people a fee.
One Medical, which was backed by Alphabet’s venture capital group, GV, provides concierge primary care in over a dozen cities (including Washington, DC) for a $199 annual fee. A handful of states gave the company vaccine doses to administer. An NPR investigation in February found that it was giving shots to people who were not eligible in California and Washington state. Those states stopped giving vaccines to One Medical after receiving complaints.
Tech executive Lucy Caldwell tells The Verge she canceled her One Medical membership after a family member was charged for the COVID-19 vaccine at its site in Washington, DC. In an emailed response to her complaint, a representative told her that bills went to patients “by default” if they did not give insurance information. The representative said that charges are removed if the company is notified and that “dozens” of people had that problem.
People vaccinated at the One Medical site were also asked to sign up for a trial membership of its health service. “That pinged as a red flag for me, because I couldn’t believe the city was asking people to sign up for some health care subscription service in order to get the vaccine,” Driver said. “But, I did it because I wanted to get the dang shot.” The free trial sign-up did not ask for billing information, and it said the service would not auto-renew.
One Medical told The Verge that it needed the information in order to create a patient chart for people vaccinated at its site.
Privacy watchdog groups have been worried about private companies using the COVID-19 vaccine administration process to collect personal data on potential customers. Pharmacies like Walgreens require that people create an online account in order to sign up for a vaccine appointment. Consumer rights organizations asked Democratic state attorneys general to investigate how the companies are using that data.
“We don’t want to see folks in their desire to get vaccinated — and frankly, protect themselves and their loved ones — be in any way taken advantage of,” Andrew Crawford, a lawyer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Politico.
Google is telling workers they are allowed to discuss pay and working conditions as part of a settlement agreement with the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), Bloomberg reports. The move settles a labor dispute brought by AWU in February.
The initial complaint alleged that managers at Adecco, a Google subcontracting firm, banned workers from talking about wages and bonuses. It also said that Adecco retaliated against contractor Shannon Wait after she posted pro-union messages on Facebook. The complaint said Google was a joint employer and should therefore be held liable for the treatment of contractors. Google did not admit to this classification in the settlement.
Wait, who’d been suspended from her job, was reinstated a week after the complaint was filed. She left the company shortly after, as her contract was only for two years, according to Bloomberg.
On Twitter, she credited the union with helping her get her job back. “The external pressure of our #union, which is only 3 months public, held both Google and its subcontractor accountable for violating labor law,” she wrote. “It’s 2021 — the year that tech companies like #Amazon and #Google stand face-to-face with workers.”
Google is posting signs at the data center in South Carolina as part of the agreement. “WE WILL NOT tell you that you cannot discuss policies with other employees,” the notice reads, according to Bloomberg. “WE WILL NOT discipline you because you exercise your right to discuss wage rates, bonuses, hours and working conditions with other employees.”
It’s a symbolic victory for the Alphabet Workers Union. The organization, which launched in January, is not currently recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. The complaint brought against Google and Adecco, however, shows the union still has teeth. Its status as a solidarity union also allows it to welcome contractors to the group. The treatment of these workers is a primary concern for union organizers.
News of the settlement comes as workers at Amazon face off with management in a union fight that could change the fabric of the tech industry. Warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama voted this month on whether to form a union. The vote count began yesterday.
Lyft and Motional have selected the Hyundai Ioniq 5 for their forthcoming autonomous ride-hailing service. Motional, which is a joint venture between Aptiv and Hyundai, said the Ioniq 5 was chosen because it represents a “convergence of mobility’s two most transformative technologies — electrification and autonomy.”
Motional hasn’t said how many vehicles it would acquire, nor where it will eventually deploy them for its robotaxi service. The company is currently testing its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Las Vegas, where it is also running an autonomous ride-hailing service with Lyft.
The Ioniq 5 was first unveiled by Hyundai last month, and won’t go on sale until later this year. Also, the vehicle won’t hit public roads as part of Motional’s fleet until after they’ve been retrofitted with the company’s hardware and sensor suite, and then put through a months-long testing regime on both public roads and a private, closed testing course.
The Ioniq 5 is said to have nearly 300 miles of range on a single charge and a two-way charging feature that Hyundai calls “vehicle-to-load,” which can supply up to 3.6kW of power. It will also be built on Hyundai’s new Electric-Global Modular Platform (E-GMP) that the automaker says will serve as the basis for an entire family of planned EVs.
Motional is the latest AV company to commit to an electric vehicle as its primary platform. Cruise, a majority owned subsidiary of General Motors, uses Chevy Bolts exclusively. Alphabet’s Waymo uses gas-powered Chrysler Pacificas while also phasing in a next-gen fleet of electric Jaguar I-Paces. Other companies, like Zoox, Nuro, and Aurora, have said they would use electric vehicles as part of their respective commercial services.
Motional as a joint venture was first announced in March 2020, when Hyundai said it would spend $1.6 billion to catch up to its rivals in the autonomous vehicle space. Aptiv, a technology company formerly known as Delphi, owns 50 percent of the venture. The company currently has facilities in Las Vegas, Singapore, and Seoul, and has also tested its vehicles in Boston and Pittsburgh.
Motional’s engineers were responsible for the world’s first robotaxi pilot in Singapore, as well as the first cross-country New York to San Francisco autonomous trip. Over the last two years, Aptiv’s fleet of safety driver-monitored autonomous taxis in Las Vegas (in partnership with Lyft) have completed over 100,000 trips. And the company recently tested its vehicles with a monitor in the passenger seat but without one behind the steering wheel.
Congressional “Big Tech” hearings often follow a three-step formula.
Step one: lawmakers demand that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai answer questions simply with “yes” or “no.” (Sample: “Is YouTube’s recommendation algorithm designed to encourage users to stay on the site?”)
Step two: the aforementioned CEOs inevitably say something else, either to inject some legitimate nuance or to dodge obvious, unflattering answers with vague platitudes. (Sundar Pichai’s response to the above question: “Content responsibility is our number one goal.”)
Step three: lawmakers point out that they’re avoiding the question and mock them. (Sample, from Rep. Billy Long of Missouri: “I’m going to ask you a yes-or-no question. Do you know the difference between these two words: ‘yes’ and ‘no?’”)
Later today, my colleague Makena Kelly will publish a breakdown of “Disinformation Nation,” a marathon House of Representatives hearing about social media, extremism, and misinformation. But to massively oversimplify, just imagine several hours of that three-step process — and that Jack Dorsey is clearly, obviously sick of it all.
While Pichai and Zuckerberg have mostly stuck to answering questions, Dorsey has started openly tweeting through the hearing — favoriting other people’s commentary, sending passive-aggressive quote tweets wishing the questions were better, and trolling Congress with a Twitter poll.
Jack Dorsey, for what it’s worth, answered “yes” to Long’s question. And on Twitter, “yes” is winning by a margin of 65.5 percent to 34.5 percent — but depending on how much longer this hearing lasts, there’s plenty of time for that to change.
Greek letters will no longer be used to name tropical cyclones in the Atlantic, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) announced today. “The Greek alphabet will never be used again as it was distracting and confusing,” the WMO tweeted.
The WMO also retired the names of three especially devastating hurricanes from the 2020 season: Laura, Eta, and Iota. The name Dorian, from the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, was retired as well. The decision was made this week during a meeting of the WMO’s Hurricane Committee. They meet every year to determine which storms caused so much damage and death during the last hurricane season that they should be removed from rotating lists of storm names. 2019 names were also discussed this year because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted last year’s meeting.
Alphabetical lists of names for Atlantic tropical cyclones repeat every six years. There are 21 names per list, and names that have been retired are replaced with names that start with the same letter. In the past, the Greek alphabet was used when there were more storms in a single hurricane season than names on the list. That’s only happened twice, in 2005 and 2020. Last year’s Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record. Back in 2006, the committee “agreed that it was not practical” to retire Greek names because they’re used so infrequently. If the committee had stuck to their 2006 decision, then this year, Eta and Iota would haveremained in rotation, but “Eta 2020” and “Iota 2020” would be added to the list of retired names.
Eta and Iota forced the WMO to reconsider those plans. Together, the storms killed 272 people and caused $9 billion in damages across Central America. “There was no formal plan for retiring Greek names, and the future use of these names would be inappropriate,” it said in its statement. This is the first time that any Greek letters have been retired.
The WMO gave a list of more reasons why it’s now decided to abandon the Greek alphabet altogether. Use of the Greek alphabet generated a lot of headlines in 2020 because it was so rare, but that took attention away from the actual impacts of the storms, the WMO said. On top of that, the names can be confusing when translated to other languages. Similar-sounding letters — Zeta, Eta, and Theta — also caused some miscommunication.
The WMO decided to replace the Greek alphabet with a supplemental list of names. Like the standard list of names, that supplementallist will also be based on the modern English alphabet, excluding Q, U, X, Y, and Z. The WMO said in a press release that names starting with those letters are “not common enough or easily understood in local languages to be slotted into the rotating lists.”
Dexter will replace the name Dorian. Dorian struck the Bahamas as a devastating Category 5 storm, damaging 75 percent of all the homes on the Abaco and eastern Grand Bahama Islands. The name Leah will replace Laura. Hurricane Laura was responsible for 47 deaths and more than $19 billion in destruction in the US and Hispaniola.
Waymo is publicizing more data from its autonomous vehicles, which it says is for the benefit of the research community. Building on the trove of data it released in 2019, the Alphabet company is calling this latest batch “the largest interactive dataset yet released for research into behavior prediction and motion forecasting for autonomous driving.”
This “motion dataset” includes over 100,000 segments, each around 20 seconds long, of objects like cars and people and their trajectories, as captured by Waymo’s sensor-laden vehicles. The company has included corresponding 3D maps and geographic details in each segment to provide researchers with context for their prediction modeling. In total, Waymo says it is releasing 570 hours of “unique data.”
A wide variety of road types in different urban environments are featured, including San Francisco, Phoenix, Mountain View, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Seattle. Waymo says it included data mined specifically for its unique qualifications for research purposes, including “cyclists and vehicles sharing the roadway, cars quickly passing through a busy junction, or groups of pedestrians clustering on the sidewalk.”
Waymo also claims that its “perception boxes,” or the colored boxes used to distinguish different objects on the road, are “state of the art” and superior to other open-source datasets. “This is important because the better the perception system is at tracking the objects and agents in the motion data, the more accurate the resulting behavior prediction model will be at predicting what they are going to do,” writes Drago Anguelov, head of research at Waymo.
To go along with the data dump, Waymo is also launching an open dataset challenge to encourage research teams in their work on behavior and prediction. There are four challenges: motion prediction, interaction prediction, real-time 3D detection, and real-time 2D detection. The winner of each challenge will receive $15,000, with second-place teams receiving $5,000 and third place $2,000.
Waymo isn’t the first company to release an open dataset. In March 2019, Aptiv became one of the first large AV operators to publicly release a set of its sensor data. Cruise, a majority-owned subsidiary of General Motors, also released AV visualization tools to the public. Argo, which is backed by Ford, has also released a dataset of HD maps called the “Argoverse.”
Alphabet has attempted to take on some wild projects over the years, like a crop-sniffing plant buggy and fish-tracking cameras. But now, its X lab is working on a device that could give people superhuman hearing. As Insider first reported, the project, codenamed “Wolverine,” is exploring the future of hearing through sensor-packed hardware. The team, members of which spoke to Insider anonymously, say they’re currently trying to figure out how to isolate people’s voices in a crowded room or make it easier to focus on one person when overlapping conversations are happening around you.
They’ve already iterated on the device multiple times, including devices that covered the whole ear and others that protruded from above the ear. These iterations have been large because the team incorporates lots of microphones into the build, but newer versions are smaller, Insider says. Multiple people from hearing technology companies have joined the team, including talent from Starkey Hearing Technologies and Eargo.
Insider says the Wolverine team’s goals most closely align to that of Whisper, a company that came out of stealth last year. That team has managed to isolate sounds through a “sound separation engine,” which adapts to wearers’ environments. This suggests the lab’s goal isn’t to just create a device everyone would want, but rather an enhanced hearing aid.
Alphabet’s team isn’t focused on just one device or one use case, Insider says. The team is looking to build a successful business with multiple devices and models, so if they’re successful, you might start wearing Google-owned hearing aids.
Health care company One Medical gave COVID-19 vaccines to people who were ineligible under local guidelines, including friends and family of company leadership, NPR reported. Health departments in Washington state and California said they stopped distributing doses to One Medical after finding out that the company was not sticking to eligibility rules.
The company was given vaccine doses in a few states, including Washington and California. Internal messages obtained by NPR show that doctors raised concerns about patients jumping the line for vaccinations ahead of people who where higher priority for the shots. Now, Alameda County, California and the Washington State Department of Health have refused to give the company more doses.
In many states, people who are older or who have underlying health conditions can get vaccinated now; younger, healthy people still have to wait. One Medical did not check to see if people who signed up for vaccine appointments through its systems were actually eligible, staffers said.
“Why are young patients without health problems, on a trial membership … allowed to book and receive a covid vaccine while healthcare workers are being waitlisted?” one medical professional asked in January in messages obtained by NPR.
One Medical, which was backed by Alphabet’s GV, offers primary care to members in around a dozen cities across the United States for a $199 annual fee. The company went public in January 2020; as of today, its market capitalization is $7 billion. The company told NPR that it doesn’t knowingly let people skip the line.
The company’s vaccine scheduling system did not ask people to confirm if they were eligible under local guidelines until January 14th, two weeks after One Medical started offering vaccines. Once it did ask, people who said they were not eligible could still book appointments. Blocking people from signing up would be too technologically difficult, the company said.
“Scanning schedules and cancelling appointments [for ineligible patients] is not recommended,” said Spencer Blackman, the director of clinical education at the company, in a message to staff obtained by NPR. Andrew Diamond, chief medical officer of One Medical, initially denied to NPR that staff were directed not to verify eligibility. Later, he said One Medical has communicated more clearly since then.
After receiving complaints, the Washington State Department of Health stopped distributing COVID-19 vaccines to One Medical. Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health warned One Medical that it would stop giving the company doses if it did not confirm patients’ vaccine eligibility. Alameda County, California said it did not give additional doses to One Medical after the company said it wanted to vaccinate people who were ineligible.
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